Sometimes great stories in sports, and greatness, are right in front of us, hiding in plain sight. It is that way right now with the Miami Heat, a really great story in the NBA, and Erik Spoelstra, who is a great coach.
"Hall of Fame coach in my opinion," Jeff Van Gundy says, but more about that later.
Spoelstra's Heat are currently 24-17. When you put that with the way they finished last season, when they finished 30-11 and missed out on the playoffs because of tiebreakers, it means they now have a record of 54-28 over their past 82 games, which is the same as a full season in the NBA. It also means that over that period, the Miami Heat just happen to have the fourth-best record in the league.
Here are the records of the three teams in front of them:
- Golden State Warriors, 64-18
- Boston Celtics, 60-22
- San Antonio Spurs, 56-26
So the Heat, without a superstar in the room, are two games worse than Gregg Popovich's Spurs over the past 82. They are six games better than the Cleveland LeBrons over the past 82. None of this means that they are going to make another big run over the second half of the season, or automatically become a tough out when they do make the playoffs this time. Or that Pat Riley, one of the rare figures in sports who was a Hall of Fame coach and then went on to a Hall of Fame front-office career, is going to make some big deal at the trade deadline.
It just means that more attention ought to be paid to what the Heat have done lately, and the work Spoelstra, who is still just 47, has done in his whole career coaching his team. As Van Gundy says, "Who knows, he may be able to out-Pop Pop someday." Meaning Gregg Popovich. Pop has won five NBA titles coaching the Spurs. Spoelstra has won two, during the time when the Heat, with LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, were making it to four NBA Finals in a row. Which ain't nothing.
"You have to have the utmost respect for what they're doing," said Van Gundy, who was once Riley's top lieutenant in New York the way Spoelstra was later in Miami, "because they're doing it with those players."
He means Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson and Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Johnson and Bam Adebayo and Wayne Ellington. And Derrick Jones Jr. And Justise Winslow. It is a team made up of tough, efficient players who hardly ever end up in "SportsCenter" highlights. But this group, over the past 82, is just 10 games behind the Warriors. Better than the Rockets and the Raptors, who continue to be a pretty good story themselves. Ain't nothing.
"We're way past the point where you can call the Heat some kind of fluke," Van Gundy says. "You don't fluke your way to a record of 54-28."
Whiteside has become an important big man in his league. But in a superstar league, the Heat really don't have one, and the irony of course is that it wasn't so terribly long ago that they had the Big 3 with LeBron and Wade and Bosh.
I constantly make it clear what a fan I am of the work Brad Stevens is doing with the Celtics, who absolutely do have the second-best record over the past 82, and have won 60 of those games. I was a fan of Stevens' work before he ever got to the pros from Butler, where he made the finals of the NCAA Tournament twice -- the second team after Gordon Hayward left for the pros (and after Hayward nearly beat Duke with a half-court shot in the finals before he did). He is the young coach in the league everybody is looking at and talking about, and with good reason.
But then you look at Spoelstra. Who did make four NBA Finals in a row. Who has won twice. Who, in a decade coaching the Heat, is moving up on 500 wins, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. He is that good. But the work he does hides in plain sight, unless you are a Heat fan.
"He doesn't have an act," Van Gundy says. "He doesn't go out of his way to draw attention to himself. He doesn't have a name for his offense. He just coaches his team. And look at the way he's coaching his team right now."
So now the Heat, who have been playing terrific ball lately, are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They are eight games behind the Celtics, who showed all that early speed, and five behind the Raptors and a two-and-a-half worse in the standings than the Cavaliers. After all the flash and glitter and headlines and flashpoint stuff when LeBron left Cleveland to go take his talents to South Beach, they do what they do now playing blue-collar ball, with blue-collar basketball players.
In so many ways, the biggest star they have is their coach, who has now won more games in Miami than Riley did. You wonder now if there is a way for Riley to find him one more difference-maker in the short run so that the Heat really can play with big guys, in their conference and in their league.
The other day, in Boston, Spoelstra was talking about the basketball culture that Riley first created when he left the Knicks for the Heat:
"We believe in it. We don't say we do it better than anybody else. We just do what we do. It's not for everybody, but to a man in our culture we believe in it. Like I said, we've had to develop different kinds of teams in different ways."
They were scratching around at .500 not long ago, the Heat were. Now they have won eight of their past 10 games, the best record in the Eastern Conference in that time. Who knows what happens over the next 41. We just know what has happened over the past 82 with the Miami Heat. Great coach. Great story. They sure can use one in Miami, right?